LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas’ Educational Opportunity Programs have secured more than $4 million in funding to ensure they can continue to help first-generation and low-income students not only reach college, but also be successful once they get there.
The programs, which include the highly successful TRIO and McNair Scholars programs, have been funded for five years. Tight federal funding made it unclear whether the full amount would be available, but the good news was welcome.
“When we got the word from Sen. Jerry Moran’s office I said, ‘Let me read this again,’” said Ngondi Kamatuka, director of the Educational Opportunity Programs of the Institute for Educational Research and Public Service. “We were thrilled. So we’re in business for another five years.”
Through nearly a dozen formats, TRIO programs span the educational lifespan, identifying students of promise from backgrounds that often come with barriers to higher education. The Educational Talent Search identifies students as young as sixth grade in Kansas City, Kan., with the potential for academic success and provides mentorship and guidance to help them graduate from high school and enroll in an institution of higher learning. The TRIO Educational Opportunity Center and TRIO Veterans Upward Bound programs respectively help first-generation and low-income adults enroll in GED or postsecondary programs and those who have served in the military enter a postsecondary education track.
In between youth and adults are a number of programs that work with students to provide guidance and opportunities necessary for college success. In fact, students who have taken part have referred their parents to the adult-oriented programs.
“It’s a really great pipeline when you think about it,” Kamatuka said. “There are many students from all kinds of backgrounds that have not had the opportunity for a higher education. These are the students we want to ensure are successful.”
Getting to college is only part of the goal. Students in the TRIO McNair Scholars Program graduate in six years with a graduate degree, and many go on to complete doctoral studies. The programs provide mentoring and assist the students with everything from making sure they have access to computers to paying for their visits to institutions at which they plan to matriculate for their doctoral degrees. Compared to their peers, McNair Scholars have higher percentages of students who graduate within six years, earning master’s degree and doctoral degrees.
Nearly 5,000 students take part in at least one of the TRIO programs. Mulu Negash, director of the McNair Scholars Program, said the success could be largely attributed to collaboration from across campus. Between 2007 and 2011, 94 faculty members either served as mentors twice or mentored two to three students simultaneously. The students’ academic interests are as varied as the faculty who mentor them. They have majored in virtually all KU fields of study, and fully one-third of the newest class of McNair Scholars are studying in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields, in which minorities are traditionally underrepresented.
While a good deal of focus is placed upon classroom work, the program’s directors realize education happens everywhere, not just on campus. Students have attended cultural events at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, the Lied Center and throughout the state. Students have also traveled to educational conferences throughout the country as part of their experiences.
“Sometimes you have to have time to socialize with people you aspire to be like,” Kamatuka said. “I grew up in a different culture, and the majority of the adults I saw were teachers and nurses. Those professions are important, but when I learned there were other opportunities and I could do things other than what I’d known, it lit a spark in me. We’d like to be able to do that for these students.”
The success of KU’s programs has been noticed beyond campus. Last fall, Debra Saunders-White, deputy assistant secretary of higher education programs at the U.S. Department of Education, visited KU to learn more about the TRIO activities. She’s since shared examples of KU’s initiatives at conferences and events throughout the country. Last winter, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was featured in the Council for Opportunity in Education’s publication Networks discussing the importance of TRIO programs.
“There are students who, because of the TRIO programs, come to the university, and who because of the TRIO programs really excel,” she said in the article. “They have opportunities that they wouldn’t have thought of.”
Kamatuka echoed the sentiment of providing opportunity for those who have not had it or may not have realized it.
“They get a different worldview,” he said of students who take part in the programs. “We have to empower them with a broader spectrum of what the world is all about. Students are the agents for social change. When we give them the opportunity to succeed in education they can succeed in the world and change ideas and grow.”